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State Labor Secretary Faces Questions On Backlog Of Unemployment Claims

Rachel Baye / WYPR

More than half a million Maryland residents have filed for unemployment insurance since March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state is still working through a backlog of about 34,000 of those applicants whose claims have not been processed.


During a Zoom meeting Wednesday, Maryland Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson told state lawmakers that the state has so far sent $2.7 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 400,000 residents. But she said Labor Department staff members are still reviewing applications received in May and the first half of June.


The lawmakers pressed Robinson for answers about the thousands of residents still waiting for benefits


“Over the last three months or so, as you know, our offices have been just overwhelmed with our constituents that are so — they have simply no money,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties. “Just last week, we had to send the police, our staff to our constituent, one of our constituents, to their home to do a wellness check because she said she was thinking of killing herself.”


Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she has heard from constituents who are worried about being evicted because, having not received their unemployment benefits, they cannot afford their rent.


Robinson said her department has hired additional staff and implemented new software to help with the unprecedented volume in claims. 


“My team is truly working around the clock to move mountains,” she said. “We are listening to our claimants and doing everything in our power to get through the backlog.”


House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke asked whether the state could send temporary benefits to people before their applications are approved and require the money be repaid if the claims are ultimately not approved. But Robinson said that would be too risky.


“Many of the states that have entered into that type of practice, paying immediately upon the filing of a claim, are the states, such as Washington State, Rhode Island ... there's five or six of them that did that immediately and ended up with hundreds of millions of dollars paid out in fraudulent claims,” Robinson said.


It appears at least some of the fraud Robinson referenced was the result of a large identity theft operation in Washington state, as well as a few other states. However, it’s not clear that the fraud is linked to programs that issued benefits to applicants before their applications were approved.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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